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Sunday, March 31, 2013

Author Karen Russell on vampires, addiction and literary tattoos

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Karen Russell's new short story collection is titled 'Vampires in the Lemon Grove.'

Karen Russell's fiendishly titled new short-story collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, follows her Pulitzer Prize-nominated debut novel, Swamplandia!, and her first collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, published when she was 25. Hailed as a "Young Lion" by the New York Public Library and named to The New Yorker's "20 Under 40" list of authors, Russell confessed to Bookish that her real ambition is to make the "85 Writers Who Are Still Lucid at 85" list.

The stories in Vampires are full of war, recovery from addiction, women who've turned into silkworms and, yes, bloodsuckers (but they've gone clean). Here, Russell reveals how "mucking around in the swampy mangrove forest" near her childhood home in Miami and reading everything from Jack London to The Grapes of Wrath shaped her as a writer of "magical thinking" fiction. By the way, she's over swamps: She tells us her next novel will be set in a dustbowl "wasteland."

Bookish: Which author or book most profoundly shaped you as a writer? Is there one writer you're guided by as a pole star?

Karen Russell: I always get tongue-tied when I have to choose a single book or author. As a younger reader, I loved Jack London, Ray Bradbury, Tolkien, the Narnia books, A Wrinkle in Time. I remember reading books like The Grapes of Wrath and The Heart is a Lonely Hunter on long car trips, probably understanding only every third word--exactly what I gleaned from those classics is hard for me to pinpoint now in retrospect, but I do remember feeling that my "real" life was my reading life--a secret life, an interior world made in collaboration with these authors, impenetrable to any outside observer. Traveling to Ray Bradbury's Martian cities felt much more memorable than my trips to buy Keds at the Dadeland Mall in Miami.

And, Flannery O'Connor's wickedly wise sensibility is a terrific pole star.

Bookish: In the title story of your new collection, Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Clyde and Magreb are two vampires who have sworn off the red stuff and who soothe their "throbbing fangs" with the juice of lemons. Are we all just vampires in the lemon grove, suppressing our desires?

KR: Ha! Well, I do think there's something to that "noble truth" business…. I think part of the power of the figure of the monster (and of the vampire in particular) is that we can all recognize and relate to the horror of compulsion, of enslavement to craving--the living death of addiction, loneliness and thirst. Even if you don't think of yourself as a vampire in recovery, I'd guess that you have some experience with an ungovernable desire. And I think those lemons were my silly way of representing the bitter relief of a temporary fix for an endless longing.

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Bookish: Your story, "Reeling for Empire," is about a group of women in turn-of-the-century Japan who are imprisoned in a silk factory and literally turned into silkworms. How did you come up with the idea of women being forced to grow silk in their bellies?

KR: It's hard for me to reconstruct exactly where that nightmare picture came from. I had been reading David Graeber's Debt, one section of which discusses female debt slavery; and John Tresch's The Romantic Machine, which got me thinking about man-machine hybrids. Then, I became fascinated with Meiji-era Japan, a period when the entire country was undergoing a violent metamorphosis from isolated feudalism to its modern form. Model mills imported Western-style technologies, and female workers left their home villages and towns to work as silk and cotton reelers.

I do remember looking at pictures of silkworms and thinking how frightening it would be to have one's selfhood erased by white fur, to become converted from an individual--a human woman with a unique history--into part of the factory machinery.

In this story, Kitsune's silk thread is a greeny-black manifestation of her grief, her regret. I often feel that certain emotions have an almost physical weight, like a rock in the gut. So, it wasn't such a stretch to imagine a memory or an emotion silking through these women's bodies and stiffening into the thread.

Bookish: Many have called your writing "magical realism," but that term can seem lighthearted--there is a death in nearly every story in "Vampires." How do you describe your work?

KR: I think that I am actually getting worse at describing my work. Less and less do I feel like I have the right distance from these recent stories to know exactly how to categorize them. I do agree that "magical realism" might not be quite the right term, since it suggests to me a hard and fast distinction between the "real" world and "magical" zones, a line that is continually effaced in the fiction I best love (Juan Rulfo's Pedro Paramo, Calvino, Borges, Kafka, Kelly Link, Kevin Brockmeier, etc). In my experience, there is no single, fixed reality--the present moment is always slippery, always filtered through one's own dreams and terrors. Which can imbue even the most "mundane" Tuesday train ride with a supernatural tinge.

Maybe what I'm writing is "magical-thinking" fiction--so many of my characters are lost in some kind of profound blind spot. They struggle to decipher their role in the disasters that befall them, or the mysteries unfolding in their own backyards. In Swamplandia!, for example, Ava desperately needs the Bird Man to be a Charon-figure, an adult guide to the underworld. Beverly in The New Veterans badly wants to be a healer, to feel that she is doing something selfless and noble--to be a powerful agent in Sergeant Zeiger's recovery. And that desire colors her perception of every interaction that she has with him, down to the feeling of the soldier's skin under her hands.

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Bookish: Like Ava in your first novel, Swamplandia!, many of your characters are kids struggling with growing up. How was your development as a writer affected by your own childhood?

KR: I think that a South Florida childhood is great training for a fiction writer. In some ways, you could say that Florida is a magical-realist state--impossible, bizarre things happen everyday. The Miami Seaquarium, with its killer whales and circus dolphins, is a block away from the canned pineapples on special at the Publix grocery store.

And, childhood continues to fascinate me--the passage from childhood to adulthood is such a private, intensely felt, halting and painful and exciting journey. (Even though, like the distinction between fantasy/reality, I think the childhood/adulthood binary is pretty bogus--what adult do you know who does not still have all of her ages rattling inside of her at once, Russian-nested-doll style?). I'm not sure if I can give you an honest and succinct reason here for why I keep returning to that threshold in fiction. I do think that a Miami childhood is one-of-a-kind: So many of my friends and neighbors were first- or second-generation immigrants, and I often felt that we were all navigating a new world together. I was also an anxious kid, a loner, and I spent hours mucking around in the swampy mangrove forest near our house, or riding my bike through the Everglades Lite that is Matheson Hammock, a man-made lagoon near Biscayne Bay in urban Miami.

Miami's weird and watery settings are all well-suited to stories about adolescence, I think. You really couldn't ask for a better landscape to stage a coming-of-age story. I think the central drama of a lot of my fiction revolves around "seeing"--a character, often a child, trying to reconcile contradictions between what they are being told and what they are learning to be true-trying to get their bearings in some swampy subjective territory.

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Bookish: You were named to the National Book Foundation's "5 Under 35" and the New Yorker's "20 Under 40" lists. Is the book world obsessed with youth, like other spheres? What other category of writer would you like to be included in?

KR: You know, those lists really put one in mind of one's own mortality. I'm hoping to make the "85 Writers Who Are Still Lucid at 85" list. I think it's excellent that the National Book Foundation and the New Yorker want to support younger writers--that support came at a crucial time for me, when I was in my mid-20s and wrestling with Swamplandia! One of the things I love about the book world, especially as I gallop into my 30s, is that an author's age matters so much less than it does in other industries. We've got at least that leg up on catwalk models and pro athletes.

I do wish that these lists and awards would drop the age cut-offs, which can feel pretty arbitrary. Authors begin their careers at every age. Ben Fountain was a debut author in his late 40s, and a debut novelist at 50. Robin Black published her phenomenal debut story collection, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This, in her late 40s, after raising three kids.

Bookish: In your story "The New Veterans," a masseuse working with traumatized soldiers accesses a soldier's pain through the vibrant tattoo on his back. If you got a literary tattoo, what would it be?

KR: My best friends and I just barely avoided getting matching e.e. cummings tattoos in high school. Speaking of age, I think I may have aged out of the possibility of getting a fabulous literary tattoo. Although, I love stories about tattoos--"The Illustrated Man" and "Parker's Back." If Odilon Redon, channeling Poe, had some mobile time-traveling tattoo shop and you could get one of his landscapes on your back, I would go there.

Bookish: Are you working on another novel? Can you give us any hints about what we have to look forward to in your next book?

KR: In my honeymoon phase of writing this new book, I was blabbing about it to strangers on the Megabus, but now I've grown slit-eyed and wary--wary of the jinx. So, it's probably safest not to say too much. It's set during the Dust Bowl drought. I'm trying for a wasteland with some colorful personalities.


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Saturday, March 30, 2013

Best-selling writer Clive Cussler by the numbers

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Clive Cussler is back on the list with 'The Striker.' Check out his career by the numbers. (Photo: Photos By Leanna)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Host of teen supernatural books bound for big screen

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The movie adaptation of 'The Host' by Stephenie Meyer comes out March 29.

Books: New and noteworthy

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'Lean In' by Sheryl Sandberg (Photo: None None)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Books about the power of alone time

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'Playing With Water' is a good alone time book.

Our world is a relentlessly social one: We are plugging in, signing on and checking in, it seems, at all times. With the marvels of digital life so close at hand, it's easy to lose sight of solitude's benefits. So, it's more crucial than ever to make time for peace and privacy. From Susain Cain's Quiet to Thoreau's Walden, these books reveal the many ways alone time can enrich.

1. Solitude by Anthony Storr

British psychiatrist Anthony Storr challenges the established notion that love and friendship are the "only source of human happiness." Pointing to several figures throughout history--from Beethoven and Beatrix Potter to Ann Sexton--whose greatest achievements came about in moments of solitude, he argues that taking alone time can lead to an enhanced understanding of oneself, as well as bouts of superior creativity.

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2. Quiet by Susan Cain

In her recent bestseller Quiet (now out in paperback), Susan Cain introduces readers to the inner lives of introverts (people for whom alone time is the norm). Drawing on her own experience as an introvert in the high-octane world of corporate law, she argues that our culture's bias towards outspokenness and charisma leads us to overlook shy people and often miss out on their acumen and potential.

3. Walden and Civil Disobedience by Henry David Thoreau

A classic of solitary literature if there ever was one, "Walden" is the story of Henry David Thoreau's two-year retreat in rural Massachusetts, where he went to live as simply and "deliberately" as he could. Holed up in a spartan cabin and subsisting solely off the land, he chronicles his rugged education in self-reliance and his meditations on God, nature and society. The experience leaves him with an irrefutable sense of self-sufficiency and a deep appreciation for aloneness. As he puts it, "I never found a companion so companionable as solitude."

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4. Celebrating Time Alone by Lionel Fisher

Six years of living alone on an island in the Pacific Northwest showed freelance writer Lionel Fisher both the bliss and treachery of extensive solitude. Fisher shares wisdom from his own experience and those of others, exploring the perils of alienation and the ways in which extensive alone time can bring happiness. "What is tragic, and so wasteful of the sanctity of life," he writes on his website, "is that we seek our happiness, our fulfillment, our answers, our very identity in others when first we must find it in ourselves."

5. Playing with Water by James Hamilton-Paterson

In "Playing With Water," renowned British travel writer and novelist James Hamilton-Paterson describes his life on a remote island in the Philippines. With little to do beyond spearing his own fish, he looks back on his life thus far, observes the graces and pitfalls of island culture, and comes to discover the tenacity of his own self-reliance.


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Book Buzz: 'Fifty Shades' casting, Katy Perry memoir

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Will Emma Watson star as Anastasia Steele? (Photo: Joel Ryan AP)

Here's a look at what's buzzing in the book world today:

Emma Watson in 'Fifty Shades': Could Emma Watson be the actress to bring Anastasia Steele to life? Hackers have leaked several documents which note that Watson is attached to star in the upcoming film adaption of E.L. James' Fifty Shades of Grey.

Geithner book: Former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner is writing a book that will be a "behind-the-scenes account of the American response to the global financial crisis," to be published in 2014.

Man Asian prize: Malaysian novelist Tan Tan Eng has won the Man Asian prize for his book The Garden of Evening Mists, which was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize and is about memory and forgetting.

Pope book race: Publishers are already cashing in on this week's news of the new Pope. Two books about Pope Francis has been set for an April 30 release: Pray for Me: The Life and Spiritual Vision of Pope Francis, First Pope From the Americas by Robert Moynihan which was announced yesterday, and Francis, Pope of a New World by Andrea Tornielli, announced today.

Long-lost Stevenson essay:The Strand Magazine has published a long-lost essay from Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island and Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde, in which he says he was often bored by the fiction written in his life.

Katy Perry book: Could the pop star be writing a memoir? British tabloids have reported that Perry signed a book deal for $3 million, but her rep has denied the news. Last month, ex-husband Russell Brand said that he was writing a second memoir that would touch on his 14-month marriage to the singer.

NYC Teen Author Festival: Six venues in New York City will host the fifth annual NYC Teen Author Festival next week, in which more than 90 authors have signed on to participate. The celebration includes a one-day event called the NYC Big Read.

'Devil Wears Prada' sequel: Check out the book cover for Revenge Wears Prada, the sequel to Lauren Weisberger's 2003 best seller that inspired the 2006 movie starring Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway.

Want more Book Buzz? Follow @USATODAYBooks and @lindsdee on Twitter.

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Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Cassandra Clare has teen fiction down like 'Clockwork'

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There's no "magic formula" for a successful YA book, says Cassandra Clare. Here, Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower star in a scene from the movie adaptation of her book 'The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones.' (Photo: Rafy Screen Gems)

James Patterson interview with longtime editor Michael Pietsch

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James Patterson talks with his editor about Amex Cross, writing, favorite books and more. (Photo: Deborah Feingold)

As any thriller fan knows, James Patterson is a megalith of fiction writing: His crime and suspense thrillers, love stories, nonfiction, middle-grade and young adult novels have all been No. 1 bestsellers--and he writes a dozen books a year. His marquee character Alex Cross, who was brought to life on the big screen by Tyler Perry last fall, is on a new, deadly chase in Alex Cross, Run. Patterson sat down with his longtime editor and publisher, Michael Pietsch (who has given Patterson "scars from the beatings," according to the author), to talk about Cross' surprising beginnings as a woman, what interests Patterson more than murders, the author's future plans to pen a "bodice-ripper" and writing in a "white heat."

Michael Pietsch: Jim, can you take us back to the moment when the character Alex Cross first appeared in your mind?

James Patterson: The weird thing about it, when I first started with Alex, it was a woman. The first 60 70 pages, it was "Alexis," and it wasn't "Cross." There was something about creating an African-American character in a woman that just felt a little too daunting for me. And I changed to "Alex," and the rest is mystery (laughs).

JP: Oh, yeah. She was a detective.

MP: And she was an African-American woman?

JP: Yeah, it was the same basic thing: She was going to get involved in the same kind of murder case.

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MP: Where did this idea of an African-American woman who was a police detective come from?

JP: I think part of it was that I had written an earlier book, The Midnight Club, which dealt with a handicapped man in a different way. He just doesn't act as though he's a victim. And it struck me that, especially at that time, and especially in the movies, African-American men in particular were just being stereotyped as these hoodlums--the people with boom-boxes on their shoulders, etcetera, etcetera. And I didn't feel that was representative of African Americans, and so I wanted to write a character who was the opposite of all the stereotypes.

So: well-educated, responsible, taking care of his family, a good dad, conscientious, solves problems with his head rather than his fists or a gun--although that's evolved. He's become fairly good with his fists, but a thinker. But, different from the stereotypes that certainly were prevalent when the Cross series started.

MP: Did you grow up reading detective and police novels? Was this a form that you'd always loved?

JP: I was always a good student, but I didn't read that much until I was 18 and I was working my way through college. But I never read detective novels. I started out in graduate school writing a more serious book. Right around that time I read The Day of the Jackal and The Exorcist. I hadn't read a lot of commercial fiction, and I liked them.

It seemed to me that I could write commercial fiction. I wasn't sure whether I could, or whether I wanted to write serious fiction at that point. So I said, "Let me try something else," and I wrote a mystery--but I didn't know much about it. The first one, The Thomas Berryman Number, won an Edgar Best First Mystery, after it was turned down by 30 publishers (laughs). But I think part of the reason that it won the award and that it was a good book is that I didn't know anything about detective stories.

MP: Your major theme seems to be the police detective investigating murders. You have the Women's Murder Club novels, the Alex Cross novels, the Michael Bennett novels and now a new series called "Private," all based mostly on a murder being investigated.

JP: What I find most interesting in those books is not the murders. I always try to make sure that they hook you and they keep surprising you. But I think [the murders are] useful. I just find the characters interesting and different. You know, Alex and his family and what's going to happen with them, and how he's relating to them, I find compelling.

Michael Bennett is growing faster than any of the others as a character. I think the voice is getting better, and the way he relates to his family and the way he relates to his very strained situation in that he is a father with 10 adopted children and also a New York City cop. And that has to be one of the most unique situations in all of crime fiction.

Now, the Women's Murder Club is, I think, very distinctive because it's four women in different fields: a police detective, a medical examiner, a newspaper writer and an assistant district attorney, who are all best friends, which is credible. It might be a little bit of a stretch that they'd be friends with a journalist, because the question would be, "Can we shut her up?"

But there's always something that drives these things: the frustration that people have with most of the institutions in our society--government, police work, etc.--to set up an investigative company that's so much better than the FBI or your police department, or Mossad. They're just better because they can afford to pay better people and get better technology. And that, to me, is a cool thing to work with.

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MP: I read that you write nearly 365 days a year. Is that true?

JP: Pretty much. Somebody said you're lucky if you find something you like to do, and it's a miracle if somebody will pay you to do it. I love to tell stories. It's a delight for me. I am very devoted--I really enjoy my wife and my son. So that's a big part of my life. I run around the golf course very early in the morning, for an hour and a half, which is a little bit of exercise. You just go and chase the silly little ball for an hour plus. Most of the rest of the day is writing and storytelling, which I love. Not a lot of socializing.

MP: How do you feel when you put pencil down at the end of a day of writing?

JP: Depressed! (Laughs.) I messed up again.

MP: Do you feel exhilarated?

JP: It really depends on the day. I think that's true of all writers. If it's a good day, you're flying. And if it's not such a good day…. The only thing now that's different than what I faced earlier, and what a lot of young writers face, is I'm very confident that I will solve the problem at some point. Whereas, when most of us start out, unless we're unbelievably arrogant, we're not sure.

MP: Are you always working on many different novels at once?

JP: In terms of outlining, I'll go on little streaks. I just went on a streak and I did four outlines in about five weeks. The reason that I will do outlines in a white heat is that I'm letting stuff flow through my system. I'll go back and read one over and add to it, and subtract and let it percolate a bit. I'm to the point now where I've put down five or six or seven potential storylines.

MP: One thing I've noticed that, for me, connects all the novels, is a real sense of your characters' working lives, how the work that they do helps them understand who they are and what matters in the world, and how the job feels to them day by day, how hard it can be sometimes. And how work life intersects with family life.

JP: That's pretty much where I'm at in terms of most of the characters that I'm interested in. I read an awful lot of novels where it's the lone wolf who goes home and drinks and smokes him or herself to sleep. And I think that certainly happens. I think it happens more in detective fiction than it happens in the real world, based on the cops and the FBI people that I've met and socialize with. I think their family life is a little bit more connected.

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MP: You've written some amazingly moving love stories. After a long track of writing suspense novels and thrillers, were you surprised when a love story came to you?

JP: No, I wasn't surprised. It's a kind of story that I like to read occasionally. And I felt that I could write one because one of the hallmarks of what I do is a lot of twists and turns and a fair amount of emotion--more than you'll find in most mysteries or thrillers. So I did feel like I could write a love story--not the so-called "bodice…" whatever they call those….

MP: "Bodice-rippers" is the typical term.

JP: (Laughs.) I've read one or two, but I don't quite get that genre. I don't know that I could write that. But a more human love story, I thought I could. But the interesting thing is, I brought the story into Little, Brown just when I was starting to consider doing more than one book in a year. I brought in Suzanne'sDiary for Nicholas. It was just that idea, and a book called Beach House.

And the man that ran the company actually started to cry when I told him the story for Suzanne's Diary for Nicholas. And then he said, "I don't think I want to do the book, though, because that's not your genre." (Laughs.) I always felt that was most publishers' point of view: You're a mystery writer. You're a sports writer, or whatever. I always felt that what people look for in my books is that you will turn the pages when you read them. So whatever it is, if it's going to be a love story, it will be a page-turning love story. At any rate, the powers that be did let me write the books.

The love stories are harder to write for me. Sundays at Tiffany's, I wrote with another writer. I wrote like nine to 11 drafts of that book. They're just harder, especially if you set the bar at "You must keep turning the pages." Because, usually, not enough happens in those books to keep me keep turning the pages. (Laughs.)

MP: I've been your editor for more than a decade now. And I'm still here.

JP: Yes. And I still have many of the scars from the beatings.

MP: After all these books, is it hard for you to get editorial notes, to have someone suggest to you to change a plot line, or a character? Or to say that something's not working?

JP: No. I really prefer that editorial letters come in the form of, "Here are the big issues." I think some editorial letters are just like, "Here are 300 things." And it's kind of overwhelming and you get this feeling that all of these things are equal and this is hopeless. As opposed to, "Now here the big issues"--and then a lot of little things. But, no, I like to get them. I trust your instincts. I think you understand what my strengths and weaknesses are. I don't think you really try to get me to do things that I might not be able to do. Every once in a while, we disagree. And I curse at you, and you curse at me. No, you don't curse back, which disappoints me a little (laughter).

MP: You manage to do a huge amount of reading for pleasure. You're always telling me about books you've read. Do you read fiction and nonfiction?

JP: In the last two years, I've cut way back. Between the adult and the young adult stuff, it really has gone over the top a little. But I'll still do 30 to 40 books a year, so it's still a fair amount of reading. Back and forth between nonfiction and fiction. I usually have three or four things that are open on my desk, on my bed, on audiobook in the car.

MP: You're passionate about getting books that kids find exciting into their hands. Besides writing your own novels for them, do you have other ideas about how parents can encourage their kids to read?

JP: Parents and grandparents have to understand that it's their job--not the schools' job--to find books for their kids. They don't realize that they have to find books for their kids. One of the reasons it's so important early on, until the kids reach a certain proficiency with reading, is a simple-minded thing, but common sense: The more kids read, the better readers they become.

So with our son Jack, he did very well in school, and he was a good reader, but he just didn't read much. So my wife and I said, "This summer, you're going to read. You're going to read every day. You don't have to mow the lawn, but you do have to read." The first summer, he said, "Do I have to?" And we said, "Yeah, you do have to, but we're going to go out with you and we're going to find a bunch of books." So we got Percy Jackson and A Wrinkle in Time and one of the Warrior Series books. And, well, my own Maximum Ride, and he read every day, or pretty much every day.

And, at the end of the summer, his reading ability had quadrupled. He was so much better. And he had read half a dozen books that he loved--a big deal. There are millions of kids in this country who have never read a book they loved. Never, ever, not one. That's a disaster. But parents: it's not so hard to find the books. That's why I started a site called

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Wizard of Oz, still behind the curtain, lives on

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'The Marvelous Land of Oz' by L. Frank Baum, introduction by Mitchell Kapner

Sunday, March 24, 2013

THE LAST LINE OF DEFENSE: The New Fight for American Liberty

Friday, March 22, 2013

DOING TIME FOR PEACE: Resistance, Family, and Community

YOUNG TITAN: The Making of Winston Churchill

Thursday, March 21, 2013


Tuesday, March 19, 2013

AL CAPP: A Life to the Contrary

Monday, March 18, 2013

STICKS AND STONES: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy

Sunday, March 17, 2013

TESTED BY ZION: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Saturday, March 16, 2013